One More Step

March 22, 2011 — 8 Comments

Add New Orleans, Austin, Tahoe, Riverside, San Francisco, San Diego, Vicksburg, Dallas, Tombstone, Tucson, Joshua Tree, Phoenix, Vegas to cities I’ve run in during the last year. Add some of the cities multiple times on multiple trips. In the rain. When I was sick. With a weight vest. On the beach, on treadmills, hopelessly lost, in the snow, in the middle of the night, twice in one day.

I wrote a version of that for the first time in 2008. But it was a shorter list for sure. When I look back on that period and partially on this one, what strikes me despite the differences in locations is the sameness of it. It was always about the same distance, at the same speed and usually around the same time at night. I realize now how unnatural that is, unproductive in a way. Periods of lots of activity can still be a stasis. In fact, the body gets used to this and settles itself into handling it.

People with energy cannot not use it. It pours out of them. There’s no question of whether they have time to do this or that, it just happens. They take one more step because they are compelled to. You rack up a history this way. The problem is when it begins such a unconscious part of your decision making process, it starts to not be enough. It ceases to mean anything if it is a routine, physically and in significance. What the body needs is unpredictability and contrast and challenges.

For me that has meant adding in new things like sprinting. Or using a weight vest. And swimming or biking occasionally. It’s less about the cities—I can trust myself now to get up and do it anywhere—and more about the diversity. The evolution of self-discipline ultimately comes to include regulating the discipline itself. To do the same thing over and over takes nothing. To do something different, exhausting, and new each time takes a robust creativity that you can be proud of.

Underlying Motivations

March 11, 2011 — 7 Comments

The underlying premise of a concept like public choice theory is that people respond to incentives. Even the government, as insulated as it is from the market, is still driven by a self-interest that colors and shapes its decisions. It’s a fact that is manifested individually first, and then collectively in second order.

This is something I think about a lot. Asking: what’s behind this? why is it this way? what am I not seeing that influences this situation? The eye of the needle determines what gets threaded through it. And people and the constraints of their environment function much in the same way. I’ve always found that getting things done is about understanding the forces that are acting on the people involved. Ignore the actions; consider the factors that created and shaped them.

It’s funny because what makes people the angriest or the most disappointed was often the most understandable. Yet their energy is typically funneled towards the examples that are least typical (and least changeable). Take something like ethics in the media. People focus on rare but overt conflicts of interest, nevertheless letting subtle but pervasive biases stand and be rewarded. For instance, everyone would agree that journalists shouldn’t cover things they have a financial stake in. But to me, its this kind of brazen corruption we should be the least worried about—at least it is easy to spot. Meanwhile, we have no problem accepting that how journalists or bloggers cover is something from which they receive direct financial benefit. The choice to make a story more than it is, to extrapolate wildly or to create controversy are all part of how a writer makes a name from themselves, particularly in a world of pageview bonuses.

The idea is to make yourself a student of incentives and of motivations. To understand that this person is addicted to chaos, that another gets paid to distort, that what matters to you is not necessarily what matters to them, or that you know what, it just can’t be helped—their self-interest is too compelling. Because if you study it and accept it uncritically, you can position yourself to travel along with that current, instead of fighting hopelessly to make it upstream. But this is contingent acknowledging a simple rule of thumb: there is always more going on beneath the surface. There is always an incentive. And a response.

Catharsis

March 3, 2011 — 8 Comments

There is the impulse when we’re angry or frustrated to take that out on other people. To be short or cruel just to slacken the tension we’ve built up. Sometimes it is harsh words, sometimes it is violence but it’s the same release. I think about that scene in Fight Club where Jack funnels all his rage and pain into destroying Angel Face.

Obviously the appropriate response is to process it, to dissipate it through evaluation and verbalization. I realized the other day that the reason I like running is because it’s inner-directional. All athletic activity is cathartic. Running takes that catharsis out on ourselves. Which honestly, is the only place it should go.

Feel disappointed in yourself, go further than you intended. Feel angry, punish yourself by turning up the treadmill. Just fucking sick of it all, go long and hard—excel. Tired? Fuck you, go faster. You were going to stop? A few more steps.

Think about what it means to play other sports with a vengence. It’s normally characterized by aggression projected outwardly at someone else. It’s never how fast they got back on defense. Never how willing they were to dive perilously for a catch. Never the restraint they showed at bad pitches. It’s about hard they hit someone else, the punishment they inflicted on someone’s body or face, how they’re “taking over the game.”

There is this notion in philosophy about retreating inside yourself. And finding a respite in doing so. In fact, not just a break but a refueling. “Love the discipline you know,” Marcus said, “and let it support you.” The idea is to find solace in self-control, rather than some brief satisfaction in abandoning it.

What I like is the process of using the treadmill to take it out on yourself. Because you know your body can handle the brunt of it. Instead of inevitably taking it out on other people, either literally so in a different sport or in the course of daily life. To walk away and be able to look at things fresh, knowing that whatever baggage you bring to a given situation has no place on other people’s shoulders or in their laps. To have a designated place in your life where you unload and dissemble it, before it piles up unmanageably high. Running for me is the activity that best approximates that, but of course there are others. It’s just a matter of discovering it and amply scheduling enough of it.

At Peace

February 16, 2011 — 1 Comment

Heinrich Schliemann’s whole life was an exercise in reification. As a commodities trader, he made his fortune through unswerving self-confidence, repeatedly, from next to nothing in St. Petersburg, Indiana, California and in Paris. Then, through a blind faith that the epic poetry of Homer was literal fact, he discovered the lost city Troy. And then Priam’s Treasure at Mycenae. And then at Tiryns. There’s a story that during the excavation of the last grave shaft at Mycenae, Schliemann unearthed a corpse whose facial features were briefly still visible. In that instance, he wrote to a friend, he recognized the face of King Agamemnon just it has appeared to him in a dream. That is to say, conclusive proof was his own imagination.

After some early missteps during his digs (Schliemann ruthlessly destroyed large parts of Troy), he found a collaborator named Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was basically the opposite of Schliemann. As a biographer wrote, he was “a pillar of strength and sanity, and unlike Schliemann he was uncompromisingly honest with himself, free from vanity and secure enough to be indifferent to success.” Virchow was the professional behind the scene, who barely batted an eye as Schliemann eagerly claimed all the credit because he was too busy directing and channeling the operation to the levels it ultimately reached.

I feel like that throwaway writeup of Virchow is about the highest descriptive achievement someone can accomplish. To be self-aware, to be assured, and to be content. It’s funny because in a way, those are the attributes that Schliemann pantomimed his entire life, with the endless searching, gratuitous wealth and constant demands for academic respect. The difference to me is that is sounds like one of them felt at peace and the other exhausted. But they both, at the end of their lives, were working on the same projects and passionately chased the same discoveries.

If I had to be one, after reading a lot about Schliemann, I would unquestionably have to be Virchow. I mean this in the most deprecating sense, because I don’t think I have the talent, the drive or the boldness to be Schliemann. What I take from the contrast illuminated in comparing the two is that we ought to try to follow the example of Virchow. And follow it fully by finding ourselves a Schliemann, whose boundlessness creates possibility out of impossibility. Someone who through sheer force of will makes their beliefs about the world true. That’s who you want to be work with, but probably not be. And I guess if you’re already and inalterably a Schliemann, fucking find yourself a Virchow. Because you need one or you’ll blow up, just like all people cursed with the natural skills of a trader inevitably do.

Convenient

February 9, 2011 — 15 Comments

I think one of the best litmus tests of quality in books about the internet is how they treat Second Life. Because Second Life is almost certainly, objectively not important or relevant enough to warrant most coverage. So when they use it, it tells me one of two things. They either have no idea what they’re talking about, or the example was just too lush for them to pass up. In the latter case, it’s the perfect strawman—a vehicle that can take as much projection and as much manipulation as they need. If you’ve got psycho-theorizing to do about culture or the internet, look no further than Second Life. It’s able, ready and willing.

In other words, it’s convenient. I guess that’s awesome for them but how well are we served by a textbook example of the confirmation bias? Sure, the reader may suspend disbelief and think of the point rather than how it was made. But they shouldn’t have to. The author should be right. And they should know what they’re talking about.

I like when you think you know what the rhyme will be in a song lyric, and then it goes in a direction you didn’t suspect. That’s a songwriter avoiding the convenient impulse. Even if you’ve never thought that before, I think there is a little rush, a little jolt, that comes when the words didn’t follow the trajectory we subconsciously anticipated. Why? Maybe because it means they’re smarter than us or they caught sight of a route we didn’t or it’s just nice to be surprised.

There is something to be said about pushing yourself to be the person that ignores the convenient choice. To commit yourself to understanding the topic well enough that you don’t need to make rely on its “Second Life example.” Also, to start to take some pleasure in seeing the obvious—the available option—and deliberately passing on it. Because you trust that you’re good enough find something better, though it may be more difficult. The ability to survive through shocks and changes and the unexpected is bred into us. We’re evolved for it. It seems to me that we may as well cultivate a channel for expressing those skills rather than allow them to atrophy.